self-released / 2017
It's a common thing for artists to look to far-flung cultures for inspiration, but Brae McKee, chief member of South Australian band Bjéar, found his in Iceland, on precisely the opposite side of the planet. And while the influence of the island nation's musical acts (most notably Sigur Rós) is certainly perceptible in Bjéar's sound, it's Icelandic folklore about elves or "huldufólk" that serves as the aesthetic touchstone for the group's debut record. The "hidden people" themselves never show up lyrically, but Bjéar's ethereal atmosphere manages to be evocative of the volcanic, otherwordly landscape where stories about them arose.
Despite that definite Sigur Rós influence, Bjéar owes its biggest stylistic debt to pre-22, a Million Bon Iver, whose sound is all over the first track, "Sierra". Opening the album with a gentle shiver of strings, the song sketches a picture of a northbound drive in the snow, and McKee's clipped falsetto refrain couldn't be more Vernonian when he sings, "I don't wanna waste my time/I don't wanna lay my line", giving way to sublimely triumphant trumpets.
Bjéar was recorded and produced entirely in McKee's home studio, but it's lushly appointed nevertheless, with some lovely instrumental flourishes; that the band is able to pull off moments like the breathtaking violin coda of "Firefall" is a testament to his considerable talent as a producer and arranger. On top of that, each of its nine tracks flow seamlessly into one another, strengthening the impression of a unified aesthetic whole - there's a assured coherence to Bjéar that's uncommon to debut records.
Nevertheless, "Cold", which centers on the arresting image of a mysterious inferno in a darkened wood, stands as the LP's cathartic high point. "It's a cold dark forest where we found the fire/And it burned me down and consumed my heart", sings McKee as the snare drum intones martially, before altering the line on the next verse: "It's a cold dark forest where we found desire". The song's got a reverent, numinous quality to it - it's almost a burning-bush moment - with its protagonist stripped existentially bare before something fearful and awesome. Though it's bound to remain ineffable, Bjéar is chasing that wonder through their music, and wherever the chase takes them in the future, it will certainly be worth following.